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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Nay Pyi-Taw this week to attend a regional summit brings his decade of leadership of Indian diplomacy to a virtual close. His first trip abroad after he became prime minister in 2004 was to Bangkok to attend the first summit of the very same organisation with the rather ungainly name, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). His last foreign tour to the BIMSTEC summit in Myanmar is a good moment to reflect on the gap between Singh’s ambitious regional vision and the difficulties he has had in implementing it.
When the BIMSTEC was set up in 1997, it seemed a huge opportunity for India to break out of the stagnant regionalism in the subcontinent. If the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was hobbled by Pakistan’s hostility towards India, the BIMSTEC was to provide an alternative route to regional integration between the eastern subcontinent and Southeast Asia. But the BIMSTEC today remains as ineffective as the SAARC. Delhi must own a lot of the blame.
Consider, for example, the question of trans-border connectivity, which has become a buzz word in Indian diplomacy over the last few years. Singh has made connecting India’s Northeast to Southeast Asia through Myanmar a major strategic objective. India is also the coordinator for connectivity projects in the BIMSTEC. Delhi has sought to promote two different important trans-border transport projects. One would link the Indian mainland to the Northeast through Myanmar with a multi-modal transport corridor. By skirting the long Siliguri Corridor, the project would provide the Northeast much-needed access to the Bay of Bengal. The second was to develop an overland highway between India’s Northeast and Thailand through Myanmar. After more than a decade of talk, both projects remain unfinished.
Thailand has also been knocking at India’s door for another trilateral project, which would build a sea/ land corridor across the Bay of Bengal, from Chennai to Dawei on the southern tip of Myanmar and then on to Bangkok. The Asian Development Bank has been eager to support connectivity projects within the subcontinent and between South and Southeast Asia.
Japan would like to build networks linking peninsular India to Southeast Asia. China has been pressing India to join in the construction of overland connectivity between southwest China, Myanmar and Bangladesh — the so-called BCIM corridor. The United States has extended strong political support to developing horizontal connectivity between India and East Asia. Many international investors have shown interest in developing a trans-shipment hub in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which sit at the very heart of the Bay continued…